Etheric science and an orphan

Shanghai Sparrow - Gaie Sebold

I received this Kindle ARC through NetGalley from the publisher, Solaris Books.


This YA steampunk novel was a pleasurable read, quick and quirky. The storyline interlinks two subplots. One is about Eveline, a fifteen-year-old orphan in Victorian England. Another is a paranormal tale involving fairies and etheric science (what is it?), fantastic audio machines and feminism, colonial attitudes and zeppelins, and the omnipotent, aloof Folk. Perhaps it’s too much for one novel, but the author is deft enough to weave all those threads together into a smooth and vivid tapestry.

Since losing her mother at the age of eight, Eveline has survived in the mean streets of London, stealing and tricking, and cajoling her way, always one step ahead of a policeman. Until she got unlucky. A mysterious Mr Holmforth plucks her off the streets and forcibly installs her in a school for female spies. All the students here are bastard daughters of noblemen and have no other place to go, and although Eveline is not a bastard, she fits right in. Like the rest, she has no other place to go.

Of course Holmforth has a secret agenda, but Eveline doesn’t trust him anyway. She would squeeze as much education as she could out of her cryptic patron and deal with his weird demands later. With her experience as a con artist and him obviously wanting something from her, she should be able to swindle him. Or so she thinks.

The only snag in her plans: she can’t do it alone. She needs to learn to trust people, to make friends, the skills that her life in the slums had almost eradicated. Eveline’s inner journey from suspicion to trust, from a solitary trickster to a leader and a friend, runs deep underneath the surface of this light and galloping adventure story.

The action is swift, the tension mounts consistently, and the stakes are impossibly high, especially after Holmforth’s plans are revealed. He wants nothing less than to invade the Fairyland, for the good of the Empire, of course, and neither Eveline nor her friends could allow him to succeed.

Holmforth is a bit flat as a villain, but I don’t hold it against the writer. Most villains are flat and colorless, both in real life and in fiction. That’s why they’re not heroes. Colors are usually reserved for the good guys.   

What I found especially refreshing about this novel: Eveline doesn’t have any romantic entanglement and doesn’t suffer from teenage angst. Those two are tired tropes of YA fantasy, but Eveline doesn’t have the luxury to indulge in either. Despite her occasional self-doubts, she must solve her problems quickly and efficiently. If she hesitates or fails, she would perish, and so would people she cares for. In her situation, she can’t afford any mush, and I liked her no-nonsense approach.

This novel has only one serious flaw. Most of the action takes place wherever Eveline is. It’s her story. But several snatches of narrative are devoted to either Holmforth or esoteric Fox, a creature of the Fairy Court. The transitions are too abrupt, and the POV snippets of Holmforth and Fox feel like riddles. They are not needed and their relevance to Eveline’s plotline only becomes apparent close to the end. They are just paragraphs of artificial secrets, not from Eveline, for she doesn’t know about them, but from the reader. I dislike it when a writer keeps secrets from the reader and dropped a star from the rating because of it.

Otherwise, an enjoyable book. Recommended.